The Tzer Island book blog features book reviews written by TChris, the blog's founder.  I hope the blog will help readers discover good books and avoid bad books.  I am a reader, not a book publicist.  This blog does not exist to promote particular books, authors, or publishers.  I therefore do not participate in "virtual book tours" or conduct author interviews.  You will find no contests or giveaways here.

The blog's nonexclusive focus is on literary/mainstream fiction, thriller/crime/spy novels, and science fiction.  While the reviews cover books old and new, in and out of print, the blog does try to direct attention to books that have been recently published.  Reviews of new (or newly reprinted) books generally appear every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  Reviews of older books appear on occasional Sundays.  Readers are invited and encouraged to comment.  See About Tzer Island for more information about this blog, its categorization of reviews, and its rating system.


Blowback by Peter May

Published by Poison Pen Press on March 1, 2011

In 2003, restaurateur Mark Fraysse, rumored to be in danger of losing a Michelin star, invited the press to hear an important announcement. Fraysse did not talk to the press that day. Instead the press reported his death, his body having been found near his restaurant after he failed to return from his afternoon run. Fraysse had been shot to death. Blood splatter "blowback" from the entry wound was found on the back of his hands. In 2010, forensic scientist Enzo Macleod sets out to find the killer, the fifth of seven cold cases he has undertaken to solve. The earlier cases were chronicled in Peter May's previous Enzo Files novels, although this is the only one I've read. In the first novel, Enzo apparently made a bet that he could solve them all.

Who would kill a beloved chef? Enzo begins by visiting the crime scene, speaking with Fraysse's mother and brother (the latter was also his business partner), and inspecting the restaurant's sterling kitchen and capacious wine cellar. Through much of this lively novel, eating and drinking plays a more important role than forensic science. Peter May writes lovingly of haute cuisine, wine, and the French countryside. Blowback is as much a celebration of fine dining as it is a mystery. It provides an inside look at the kind of restaurant (together with its food and wine) that earns the highly coveted three star Michelin rating. Reading it made my mouth water; I would have gained ten pounds sating my stimulated appetite if the novel had been longer. Of course, being in France, Enzo's thoughts turn to romance; Dominique, the police officer who was first on the scene of the crime, catches his eye. Food, wine, and desire: who knew solving murders could be such fun?

Blowback is a clever mystery novel. As Enzo investigates (in between meals and drinks and romantic interludes), several suspects with potential motives for homicide come into focus. The first half of the story proceeds at a leisurely pace but it picks up a bit after Enzo learns (via a near death experience) that his life is in danger. Peter May is a capable writer; his prose isn't stirring but it is better than average for the genre. The resolution is satisfying, with the kind of twist ending that mystery fans should appreciate.

The novel does have its faults. May gives Enzo an overwhelming amount of family baggage that apparently accrued during the course of the series. Enzo's uncertain relationships with siblings and children and former lovers take the phrase "complicated life" to a new level. Perhaps that adds depth to his character for the reader who is familiar with the earlier books. For me, it was too much; Enzo's family issues eventually became a distraction from the plot, slowing the pace just as suspense was building (fortunately, it rockets along at the end). I was also annoyed by the convenient parallels between Enzo's family issues and those of the Fraysse family -- parallels that were a bit too coincidental to be credible and too manipulative to add the drama that May likely intended. Finally, Enzo discovers what purports to be a memoir but it is written in the same voice as the rest of the novel. Still, despite its imperfections, Blowback is an entertaining novel that most mystery fans and nearly all foodies should enjoy.



Born Again by Kelly Kerney

Published by Mariner Books on September 5, 2006

Mel is an alienated eighth grader. As a Pentacostal Revivalist Born-Again Christian, she feels persecuted by the other kids at her secular school, yet she's annoyed by her peers at Sunday school, who strike Mel as being either self-righteous or dull-witted. Her only friend is Beth, for whom she feels sorry because Beth is a Methodist and that's "like having no religion at all." As the novel progresses, Mel faces two crises of conscience: she needs to read Darwin for academic camp and wants to refute his observations about evolution but finds herself agreeing with much of what he writes; and she wants Beth to be "saved" but feels guilty about pushing her toward a life that she is beginning to question.

Ultimately, Born Again is a tribute to reason and to intellectual curiosity. Mel is too intelligent, too inquisitive, to continue blindly accepting the teachings and restrictions of her pastors and parents when they no longer make sense to her. Mel's parents and pastors want to shield her from information: they restrict the books she can read and won't allow her to listen to secular music. As Mel struggles to understand Darwin, she feels conflicted when her pastor preaches that "it is a sin to try to find answers to things we are not meant to know." Throughout the novel, Mel wonders why knowledge is ever a bad thing to have: knowledge of science, of sexuality, of music and literature.

The characters in Born Again are well drawn: from Mel's abusive, mentally ill mother to her ineffectual father and rebellious siblings, Kerney creates multi-dimensional characters with unique, believable personalities. Unlike some people who have set aside a particular religious affiliation, Kerney (who was raised as an evangelical fundamentalist) displays no bitterness when writing about Mel's struggle with an intellectually intolerant version of Christian faith. Instead, she tells Mel's story with gentle humor and honesty. Born Again is a very funny book, and at times a very powerful one. Readers need not fear that it is anti-Christian, although it is anti-intolerance. It's a strong first novel that should appeal to anyone who values good writing and open-mindedness.



A Perfectly Good Family by Lionel Shriver

First published in 1996

When so many modern novels are about dysfunctional families, why read another one? There are several reasons. Lionel Shriver brings a unique wit to her storytelling. Her tale is fresh and funny. She gives her characters depth but isn't oppressive about it.

The "perfectly good family" in question consists of Corlis, Truman, and Mordecai McCrea, three siblings who must come together to deal with their inheritance after their mother's death. The will leaves each child a quarter of the estate (consisting mostly of the family home) with the remaining quarter going to the ACLU. Truman (the youngest, who has always lived with his parents, even after his marriage) feels entitled to keep the house for himself. Mordecai (the oldest, pushing 40, with three broken marriages and a drinking problem) wants to sell the place and use his share of the money to revive his cash-poor business. Corlis (who was invited to leave her flat in London after her two male roommates discovered that she was splitting her affections between them) has decided to stay in North Carolina but finds herself in the middle of the dispute between the brothers, neither of whom can buy out the other's interest without her help.

A Perfectly Good Family was first published in Great Britain in 1996. Shriver's sixth novel mixes comedy with drama, but there isn't much dramatic tension in the conflict between the children. The drama increases toward the end, as the deadline for selling or refinancing draws near (the ACLU wants its money and isn't inclined to wait any longer), but the mood remains lighthearted. The reader has little reason to invest in either brother; in their separate ways, they are equally childish. Corlis, who provides the novel's point of view (and who seems to be something of a stand-in for Lionel Shriver, who grew up with two brothers in Raleigh, where the novel is set), is a more sympathetic character, although so often adrift and indecisive that it is difficult to cheer for her success. The novel ends on an up note that quickly follows a tragedy, but none of that created an emotional impact that would lead me to recommend the novel as a satisfying family drama.

As light comedy, however, the novel succeeds. The characters are amusing and in broad terms are recognizable as members of typical American families. Shriver's pithy observations about their roles in the family and in life make the novel worthwhile. For instance, Truman looks forward to finishing a product (shampoo or whatever) so he can buy a new one, leading Corlis to wonder "if this delight in dispatching products in order to re-acquire them wasn't a functional definition of the middle class." It's that kind of gleefully irreverent writing that gives the novel its edge, and thus its value. A Perfectly Good Family didn't generate any belly laughs while I was reading it, but it produced enough knowing nods and soft chuckles to make me recommend it as a better-than-average comedic exploration of a family dynamic.



The Spanish Game by Charles Cumming

Published by St. Martin's Press on November 25, 2008

Alec Milius, who made his debut in A Spy By Nature, returns to action in The Spanish Game. Six years have passed since the events described in A Spy by Nature and Milius is still worried that the CIA and the SIS are out to get him. After bouncing around the world, Milius has come to an uneasy rest in Madrid where he does freelance intelligence work for a private British bank. His boss, Julian Church, sends him to San Sebastián to determine whether Basque unrest will have an impact on business development in the region. Julian puts Milius in touch with an old friend there, a Basque politician named Mikel Arenaza. When Arenaza goes missing after arranging to meet Milius again in Madrid, Milius is drawn back into the world of espionage while investigating his disappearance.

I suspect some readers won't like this novel because they won't like Milius. He is self-centered, obsessively paranoid (perhaps with reason, but that makes him no less unlikable) and a bit amoral (even sleezy). None of that bothered me. I don't need to like the characters in order to enjoy a novel, so long as the characters and story are interesting. If you're looking for a morally pure or likable hero, however, you should probably pass this one by. Having said that, it's only fair to point out that at the end of this novel, as was true in A Spy By Nature, Milius shows himself capable of remorse, if not change.
Other readers won't like this novel because they're looking for more action or less ambiguity. You don't get thrilling chases, gunplay, explosions, high tech weaponry, or nonstop action in a Cumming novel. You don't get larger than life, morally pure good guys or cartoonishly evil bad guys. Instead, Cumming gives you an intelligent, credible plot and interesting, ethically challenged characters. That's not to say that the novels are dull or that they lack action. In The Spanish Game, the story develops slowly, piece by piece. The pace begins to quicken at the novel's midway point as the pieces begin to cohere, and there's quite a bit of action by the end, but Milius spends more time thinking than fighting. The novel has some elements of a mystery as the reader, along with Milius, tries to understand the relationship between the major players. As in any good mystery, the ending came as a complete surprise to me, and a very satisfying one.

The Spanish Game departs from the conventions of the typical spy novel by centering the conflict around Basque terrorists (or liberationists, as you prefer), about whom I knew little before reading the novel. I was drawn into the story and even started to feel a bit of sympathy for Milius. Cumming writes well, bringing a literary quality to his prose that, while falling short of Le Carre, is a pleasure to read. This is a better novel than A Spy By Nature, although not quite as good as his second novel, The Hidden Man (an espionage novel that doesn't feature Milius).



Game Control by Lionel Shriver

First published in 1994

Living in "a state of near-permanent shame" and ever fearful of being a burden, Eleanor Merritt tries to please everyone, which of course pleases no one. Wracked with guilt at the poverty she sees in Kenya, Eleanor is a soft touch for anyone who wants to take advantage of her -- and nearly everyone does. Eleanor lives in Nairobi, representing an organization that seeks to empower women through birth control -- an ironic choice given that Eleanor feels no empowerment of her own. At a population control conference she encounters Calvin Piper, with whom she once had a fling. Piper, the former director of the USAID's Population Division, now advocates rather extreme methods of controlling population growth (he sees high levels of infant mortality as a good thing). Eleanor also meets Wallace Threadgill, a former advocate of population control who now argues that population expansion is economically beneficial for underdeveloped countries. To Eleanor's dismay, both men are celibate. Eleanor starts spending most of her free time with Calvin and, despite their celibacy, they fight as lovers do (she cares only about feelings, he cares only about facts). When Eleanor learns the nature of Calvin's plan to control the world's population, she can't decide whether to call the police or join the cause.

Although you wouldn't know it from that synopsis, Game Control is a very funny book. Shriver's characters are memorable. Eleanor, 38, childless, and undergoing a midlife crisis that seems to have started in her childhood, could be a cliché, but Shriver makes her fresh. Habitually striving to be kind, Eleanor nonetheless has a biting sense of humor, as when she observes: "I'm quite tired of listening to men describe how they've turned into emotional fence posts as if it's some kind of achievement."

Shriver has great fun with the influence of funding on statistics: her epidemiologists want rates of HIV infection in Africa to be high while her demographers want those rates to be too low to affect population growth; each group produces statistics that will support their fundraising. In materials appended to the 2007 P.S. edition of the novel (the novel was first published in 1994), Shriver explains that she was motivated to write the book by her discovery of the relationship between research and funding.

My biggest issue with Game Control is that the novel doesn't seem to know what it wants to be. The tone is too lighthearted for the book to succeed as drama; Calvin's rather extreme plan to control population growth can't be taken seriously, leaving Eleanor's desire to get laid as the only source of dramatic tension. The novel doesn't fully succeed as a comedy; despite some very funny moments, Shriver's attempt to grapple with serious issues in a serious way undercuts the story's comedic appeal. The novel works best as social commentary but ultimately I was left asking wondering what its thesis was, what point Shriver was trying to make. If her point is that people don't solve problems by attending endless conferences, fair enough, but that leaves us wondering whether people should be doing something else, perhaps something less drastic than Calvin had in mind, but Shriver offers no effective alternatives to the methods that she vilifies. Finally, although the ending is satisfying, Eleanor's lack of personal growth is not. At times it seems she's making progress in her quest to become something other than a doormat, but by the end little about her has changed. That's disappointing given that she is such a likable character. Of course, the novel might simply reflect a disagreeable reality: it is difficult to change one's personality in middle age. That fact makes it no less frustrating to read about a character who doesn't internalize the lessons she seems to be learning.

Despite those reservations, I recommend the novel. It isn't perfect but it's worth reading just for the chance to chuckle while getting to know the characters.